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Americans spend more than $30 billion on alternative medicine, NIH-backed study finds

Spending for practices such as chiropractic, yoga and meditation represents 9.2 percent of all out-of-pocket spending on healthcare.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Americans spent $30.2 billion out-of-pocket on alternative healthcare such as herbal supplements, yoga and meditation, according to a new nationwide survey -- $28.3 billion for adults and $1.9 billion for children.

Dubbed "complementary healthcare" by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Complementary, spending for these practices represents 9.2 percent of all out-of-pocket spending by Americans on healthcare, and 1.1 percent of total healthcare spending.

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The findings come from an analysis by the CDC and the NCCIH, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. They were based on data from a special supplement on the use of complementary health approaches to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which is conducted annually by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Broken down by the type of complementary approach, the data showed that Americans spent $14.7 billion out-of-pocket on visits to practitioners such as chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists. That's almost 30 percent of what they spent out-of-pocket on services by conventional physicians. They spent more on visits to complementary practitioners than on natural product supplements or self-care purchases, and the mean annual out-of-pocket expenditure for practitioner visits was $433.

When it came to natural product supplements, Americans doled out $12.8 billion out-of-pocket, about one-quarter of what they spent on prescription drugs. The mean annual out-of-pocket expenditure in this category was about $368.

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Purchases related to self-care approaches -- like self-help books or CDs related to complementary health topics -- came in at $2.7 billion, and the mean annual out-of-pocket expenditure per user was $257.

As family income went up, out-of-pocket spending on complementary approaches went up significantly. The average per user out-of-pocket expenditure for complementary health approaches was $435 for people with family incomes of less than $25,000, and $590 for those with family incomes of $100,000 or more. Out-of-pocket expenditures for visits to complementary practitioners averaged $314 for people with family incomes of less than $25,000 and $518 for those with family incomes of $100,000 or more.

"We did an earlier study on cost data from the 2007 NHIS, which was not directly comparable to this one because of differences in survey design," said Richard Nahin, NCCIH's lead epidemiologist and lead author of the expenditures on complementary health approaches analysis, in a statement. "However, globally, in both years, substantial numbers of Americans spent billions of dollars out-of-pocket on these approaches, an indication that users believe enough in the value of these approaches to pay for them."

Twitter: @JELagasse

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